Joash Onyango, the Harambee Stars defender and former Gor Mahia assistant captain, is the latest big-name player from Kenya to cross the border to Tanzania as debate now rages whether the Kenyan Premier League is slowly losing its appeal as East Africa’s most preferred league.
For a long time, the KPL has been touted as the best run league in the region. But now, the Tanzanian Premier League is dismantling this notion as the Kenyan top division continues to lose some of its best players to Vodacom Premier League.
The Kenyan league has always been a magnet for foreign players from as far as Nigeria, Ghana, Rwanda and even Congo, but political bickering and lack of constant revenue stream are slowly killing what was once a competitive league that has all but stunted.
The outbreak of the Covid-19 made the already bad situation even worse for Kenya’s top domestic competition as there has been no football action in the country since March 2020.
Until Tanzania started luring Kenya’s best, no other league in Africa attracted the highest number of Kenyan players like the Zambian Super League.
It is in Zambia where Jesse Were has made his name as one of the best goal scorers and Ian Otieno is slowly scaling his way up the ranks of the Harambee Stars goalkeeping department. Anthony Akumu was also spotted by Kaizer Chiefs while turning out for Zesco United.
While Kenyan players have featured for Tanzanian clubs before, the rate at which top players are exiting the KPL in search of greener pastures in the neighbouring country should be a red flag for football stakeholders back in Kenya.
In the old times, when KPL was still on our screens every weekend, Kenya was the ideal dream of any ambitious player who was looking for a stage to display his talent to the world.
This is where Ugandan Dan Sserenkuma got his breakthrough when he moved to Albania, same as Rwandan Jacques Tuyisenge who moved to Petro De Luanda of Angola.
That tectonic force is slowly shifting as more and more top Kenyan players cross the border to Tanzania where big money, incentives and media hype is taking over in the busy highway of the sports industry and where creativity and stability intermingle seamlessly.
Of great worry is the fact that these players don’t just move to Tanzania from some struggling Kenyan clubs but some of the biggest like Gor Mahia.
Playing for Gor Mahia is a dream of almost every Kenyan player. In fact it is usually considered a sign that one’s career is heading to the dark tunnels if you leave K’Ogalo for another local side.
From Gor, a player was expected to join elite leagues in the continent like the Egyptian, South African, Sudanese and Zambian.
Tanzanian league, it appears, is joining the big boys.
Onyango who was with the Harambee Stars at the last Afcon tournament in Egypt penned a two-year deal with Simba SC.
This is the second time in less than a year that Simba has raided Gor Mahia of their prised off their main asset.
In July 2019, influential and creative midfielder Francis Kahata swapped the green jersey for red.
That deal saw him link up with his former teammate at Gor Mahia Meddie Kagere who had moved to Tanzania after Gor Mahia failed to convince him to extend his stay at the club.
And just last week, another Gor player Robert Mapigano joined Azam, another top Tanzanian side.
Just like Onyango, Mapigano cited lack of payment or delayed pay as among the reasons why he left. “I’m now looking for a new challenge elsewhere. This is due to non-payment of salaries,” the former Singida custodian said moments before Azam announced him as a new catch.
The recent exodus comes at a time when there are reports that Football Kenya Federation (FKF) has signed a KSh1.4 billion sponsorship deal with a betting company ahead of the new season.
The Kenyan league is currently managed by a limited company on behalf of the federation but there has been a cold war between the two parties.
Some easpirants in the forthcoming FKF elections argue that the Kenyan Premier League Limited should continue running the league but Nick Mwendwa, the Kenyan FA boss, meanwhile, has made it clear that KPL contract will not be renewed beyond September 24.
On the other side, Vodacom, who are the Tanzanian Premier League title sponsors have a deal with the Tanzanian FA worth KSh418 million (TSh 9 billion) a year. This is in addition to the KSh57 million (Ksh19 million per year) deal with KCB Bank-Tanzania.
KCB is a Kenyan company and they have a club in the KPL.
So one may ask: Why a Kenyan firm like KCB would opt to inject millions of shillings in a foreign league instead of supporting their own? The answer is quite straightforward.
While in Tanzania football enjoys a strong political stability, in Kenya the two ghosts haunting the games are squabbles and lack of financial accountability.
Over dependence on funds from the title/broadcast sponsorship is another problem that is eating the Kenyan league like a cancer.
Additionally, a majority of Kenyan clubs are either corporate- or government-owned and even those in the hands of private individuals don’t have enough financial muscle to wade through the season in the event that a sponsor abruptly pulls out, which has been the new normal recently – going by the action of pay television, Supersport and SportPesa, the gaming firm which left Kenya last year.
This leaves Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards, two fiercest rivals and the most supported teams on the land, to wave the KPL flag albeit fibbly because they are currently in financial doldrums.